One day early in the spring, clubhouse attendants rolled a ping-pong table into the Royals clubhouse at their complex in Surprise, Ariz. In the intervening weeks, one of the team’s most zealous occupants of the space wore a beard he fashioned after John the Baptist and searched for friendly competition day after day.
Danny Duffy played in the morning before workouts and he played in the afternoon as the exhibition games finished up. He faced big-leaguers and minor-leaguers. He even volleyed with the sons of his teammates. He spent each game with the paddle in his right hand.
Duffy eats and writes with his right hand, but he earns millions because he can throw a 95-mph fastball with his left. He shoots a basketball left-handed. When he tries to play catch with his right hand, he explained, “it’s a joke.”
His ambidexterity in ping-pong resulted from necessity. Duffy learned the skill as he recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2012. With his left arm in a sling, he dueled on the table with fellow rehabbers like Joakim Soria and Blake Wood.
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Soria has played for two different teams since his Royals career ended. Wood has never pitched for Kansas City since his injury. And Duffy, meanwhile, will start for the Royals against the White Sox on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium. Duffy understands the magnitude of his assignment, as the No. 2 starter on a club with a championship pedigree and playoff aspirations.
“I’m definitely ready for the task,” Duffy said. “I definitely am. We’re the defending American League champs. And I’m our quote unquote second guy up.”
Then he shook his head and praised the veteran members of the starting rotation. “I’m lucky that I throw with the wrong hand,” he said.
At 26, Duffy is the second-youngest member of the Royals rotation, behind 24-year-old opening day pitcher Yordano Ventura. Duffy is also old enough to operate as a piece of connective tissue from the early days of general manager Dayton Moore’s rebuilding phase to the current era. Duffy was the third player chosen by the Royals in Moore’s first draft in 2007. And yet he is still under team control for three more seasons.
Duffy reported to spring training assured of his place in the club’s plans, which allowed him to relax. He married his girlfriend in a small ceremony last September in Kansas City, added 15 pounds of muscle during the winter and revamped his training regimen to prepare for completing 200 innings for the first time in his career.
Duffy performed well enough last season to earn a comfortable slot among the starters. He demonstrated evidence of increasing on-mound maturity, altering a perception voiced by scouts from other clubs and even some within his own organization.
“You just learn to mature and grow and figure out at the big-league level, you’re not going to survive long throwing 100 pitches in five innings every time you step out there,” manager Ned Yost said. “And being consistently behind in the count. And up in the zone. You have to adapt. You have to learn. You have to continue to develop.”
Duffy occupied a peculiar place in the story of the 2014 Royals. For a sizable section of the season, he anchored the rotation. After joining the staff in May, Duffy logged 25 starts with a 2.55 ERA. He led the starters with 3.6 wins above replacement, Baseball-Reference’s catch-all metric that measures a player’s value over a Class-AAA equivalent.
But in September, Duffy felt soreness in his shoulder. He missed most of the month. When he returned, he experienced a stress reaction in his ribcage. The injury removed him from the team’s rotation for the playoffs. The Royals hid Duffy’s ailment, which forced Duffy to endure awkward questions about his lack of usage as the bullpen’s long reliever. Duffy relished his team’s run to the World Series, but his minimal contributions “kind of stings, still, a little bit.”
“That was tough, man,” Duffy said. “That was tough. Because I know if I’m healthy I’m probably in there a little more, obviously. It would have been nice to have been able to do that. But we took as much out of it as we could.”
The absence added further motivation to his winter. Duffy cut back on his running, reformed his diet and strengthened the muscles in his core and his legs.
His improved physique impressed observers like pitching coach Dave Eiland. Eiland also complimented Duffy on his ability to feed off his aggression, rather than let it consume him.
“He’s learning to channel his emotions the right way, instead of losing it, and losing his concentration,” Eiland said. “Once you lose your concentration mentally, you lose it with your body and you get out of whack. Now he’s able to channel it the right way and gain control of himself, to stay within his delivery, so he can execute pitches.”
The Royals allowed Duffy the time to grow up in their organization. He intends to reward them with his performance in 2015 — and beyond.
“I’m ready to do whatever’s asked of me,” Duffy said. “And I think what’s being asked of me is a little more than the last couple years.”